The Paradoxicality of John Donne’s “Biathanatos” (Part 1)


Many scholars have considered John Donne’s Biathanatos to be an ironic or otherwise unserious work. According to one nuanced version of this view, which has been advanced by critics such as A. E. Malloch and Rosalie Colie, the work falls within the genre of the Renaissance paradox. If so, then Donne’s “defence of suicide” is a fundamentally duplicitous and dialectical text. Nevertheless, the categorization of the work as a paradox fails to take into account certain important features of the work. One of these features is related to the scope of Donne’s argument, insofar as Biathanatos is not a blanket defence of suicide, but rather a vindication of what we might call “self-sacrifice”—a category which encompasses some instances of martyrdom. Once we take the gravity of Donne’s subject matter into account, alongside the lucidity with which he pursues his arguments, the claim that Biathanatos is a Renaissance paradox begins to look more and more untenable.

We might therefore feel compelled to embrace the opposite position. The first known reader to view Biathanatos as a serious work was the author’s son—John Donne the younger—who was also the one to see his father’s manuscript into print.[1] In his dedicatory epistle to Philip Herbert, which appears in the printed editions of the work, Donne the younger writes that “although this book appear under the notion of a paradox, yet I desire your Lordship to look upon this doctrine as a firm and established truth” (Donne, Biathanatos 1982 5-6). More recently, Michael Rudick and Margaret Pabst Battin have argued that “Biathanatos is a straightforward work, straightforwardly intended” (xlii). This treatment of the text, which allows us to approach Biathanatos as a work of moral philosophy, is the most perspicuous to date. Yet there remain several gaps, such as Donne’s explicit use of the word “paradox” in the description of Biathanatos, as well as his occasional forays into satire and dark humour. Rudick and Battin also overlook a major point in favour of the “straightforward” thesis, which is that Donne’s vindication of self-sacrificial martyrdom has the corollary function of absolving some of his own martyred ancestors.

It is my wish to defend the “straightforward” thesis. In what follows, I will first outline the basic thrust of Colie and Malloch’s view, which I will supplement with the relevant counterarguments. Next, I will explain how martyrdom is treated in Biathanatos and why it held personal significance for Donne. This will provide an independent reason for thinking that the work was “straightforwardly intended.” Finally, I will discuss several gaps in Rudick and Battin’s account. My solution will be to argue that Donne was fearful lest his work be misperceived as heterodoxical. As a result, he attempted to mitigate its threatening aspects in a number of ways, one of which was to shield it under the label of the paradox.

Continue on to Part 2.


[1] Biathanatos was entered in the Stationers’ Register on September 25, 1646 (Sullivan 63). By that time, the poet had already been dead for fifteen years, leaving behind both a transcribed manuscript of his “defence of suicide” and the express instructions that it be neither printed nor burned (Rudick and Battin xv). The decision to publish—and hence to deny the author’s posthumous wishes—came from Donne the younger, who nevertheless claimed that the only way to save the work from the fire was to commit it to the press (Donne, Biathanatos 1982 5). By most accounts, the work was completed sometime in 1608 (Sullivan 52), which sets its chronology slightly before that of Pseudo-Martyr. A first edition came out in 1647, with a second edition following—published anonymously—in 1700 (Sullivan 52). Neither edition created a major stir amongst the reading public, although there were several attempts at refutation (Rudick and Battin xix).

Works Cited:

  • Donne, John. Biathanatos. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982. Print.
  • Rudick, Michael and Margaret Pabst Battin. “Introduction.” Biathanatos. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982. Print.
  • Sullivan, Ernest. “The Genesis and Transmission of Donne’s Biathanatos.” The Library, 31.1 (1976): 52-72. Web.

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